My first experience in international travel was during the George W. Bush Administration. My younger brother and I backpacked through Europe for a month in the summer of 2005.
In the event you don’t recall much about that year, it was the one when we learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, negating both the reason we invaded and the loss of life on both sides. It was the year that Bush used a recess appointment to name John Bolton to be UN Ambassador – a guy who claimed there was no such thing as the UN and once said that “all international laws are invalid, meaningless attempts to constrict American power.” It was the year that Pfc. Lyndie England was convicted of torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
It was not our finest hour. The international community did not much like or respect George W. Bush, and that bled into a dislike for all Americans.
I remember standing on a subway platform in Paris that summer when a woman approached me to ask for directions. I smiled, apologized, said I wasn’t from the area. Her eyes widened, shock rippling over her body. “You’re an American,” she said. “Don’t hold it against me,” I replied, “I didn’t vote for him.” She couldn’t get away from me fast enough.
In Munich, while we were standing in front of the Never Again memorial at the Dachau Concentration Camp, I overheard a British woman say to her friends, “Never again…unless you’re an American.” They all laughed and called Americans “evil imperialists.”
By the time we got to Rome I had developed a sense of humor about it. When the Ukranian woman heard our accents and rolled her eyes in disgust, spewing, “Ugh. Americans,” I put on my wryest smile and replied, “Well, we’re not gonna be friends.” At least she laughed.
The only bright spot was a Canadian couple we met in Florence who told us they’d been defending Americans everywhere they went. “Americans are really nice, generous, caring people,” they’d tell anyone who disparaged us. I am still grateful for those two.
That was 2005 and my brother and I were only overseas for a month. Tomorrow, R and I are getting on a plane destined for Portugal. We’ll be outside the U.S. for at least six months. I thought it couldn’t get much worse than traveling during the Bush Administration, but my country just elected Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Only 57 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot in this election, and of those less than half voted for Trump. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump took the White House. A full 43 percent of us sat at home and did nothing. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. I am terrified for the nation and for humanity. We elected a game show host to the highest office in the land. A narcissistic, bigoted, racist, sexist, nuclear proliferation supporting game show host with precisely zero experience governing.
Even if Trump accomplishes nothing, his awful, fear-mongering rhetoric will once again set the international community’s teeth on edge. What shall we do?
I can tell you with certainty that most of the people who voted for Trump don’t give a shit about what the international community thinks about us. That’s their prerogative. But I care. I care not just for selfish reasons (I mean, of course we worry about our safety). I care because we’re all part of the same human community. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.
My friends want me to do something to explain who we really are to the people we meet. But I don’t know where to find those two Canadians, and anyway I doubt they’d be willing to be seen with us after what just happened.
So, after a lot of thought, I have decided that instead of trying to explain this I will be asking for advice. Many of the countries on our itinerary have been around a lot longer than the U.S. They’ve seen tyrants and tycoons, impostors and criminals. They might be able to teach us something.
What do you think, dear readers? What shall we do?
In 1972 we visited Paris – and my first exposure to the opinions others had about Americans stunned me. While visiting Versailles our tour group was practically overrun by German tourists as they pushed their way ahead of us. Our guide explained that our country, the US, was in debt and they looked down on us because of it. While it was unnerving, I was grateful for the explanation and learned something. By all means, ask and learn.
In Spain, my friend Heather and I became experts at pretending not to speak English. Our pretend language was vaguely Scandinavian like the Swedish chef from the Muppet Show. (This strategy backfired once with a group of Southern Europeans who were also PO’d with Germany, and I look very German. There were chants of “Deutschland go home.” Live and learn.) If that fails or is inappropriate, then I simply clarify that I’m San Franciscan/Californian. Yes, there are the inevitable questions about surfing. But at least it’s clear that I’m a bona fide progressive. Also, being gay is a huge help. Good luck!
By all means, please ask and learn, even when it means reporting back things we don’t want to hear. We need to. Please continue to educate those of us who can’t branch out internationally because of domestic commitments and limitations of being stuck in a working-middle class rut…and especially for those of us whose world revolves around caring for a vulnerable individual we love. (In our case someone with severe disabilities)
Please tell us what you hear and hopefully inspire us to come together and bring real change here on our soil. Can you reach the part of the community who thrives on the poison already spread? I’m afraid not and that is the deepest fear!
BUT, after wallowing in agony the greater part of this week, I opted to force myself to focus on positives and actions that could make a difference, driven by acceptance that I must allocate energy only to things that I can actually control.
Ask, learn, share, act. Help us do the same!!!!!
(And I do hope you truly enjoy this international leg of this wonderful journey you have earned!)
Putting my fear and loathing aside for a moment, as you, TG, put into words everything I’ve been feeling and telling others since Wednesday morning, I have had similar experiences in Europe during the Bush years – all of them. I just smiled and said I was from San Francisco and/or California. That always did the trick. But this time it’s different. In March I’ll be in Western Europe; a typically very liberal expanse populated by a myriad of peoples from all over the planet, and I want/intend to say quite honestly that, “I didn’t vote for him – I voted for her”…and hope that they’ll not still hate me. This time it’s more than embarrassment or even humiliation – it’s absolute disappointment in my nation and its populace for allowing this “thing” to occur. Both those who voted for Chump [I will NEVER, EVER say President “T”] and those who thought they were making a statement by doing nothing, or were just lazy, evoked such a feeling of shame I’ve never felt before. I’m a patriot. A bona fide, prior full-time, active duty US military patriot. Ultimately, we get the government we deserve – and all of us – regardless of whom we voted – or not – will suffer the consequences.